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August 02, 1983 - Image 7

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Publication:
Michigan Daily, 1983-08-02

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The Michigan Daily - Tuesday, August 2, 1983 - Page 7
DICTIONARY EDITOR RETIRES AFTER 35 YEARS
Words are prof's business

By BETH ALLEN
There is something about every word
that brings out the detective in English
Prof. Sherman Kuhn. For the past 35
years, the soft-spoken, white-haired
lexicographer, or dictionary maker,
PROFILE
has combed through medieval
documents and literature to compile
the definitions of middle English words.
"I never saw a word that wasn't in-
teresting," he says. "There are lots of
people I haven't liked, but words - I
like them all."
KUHN'S passion, the University's
Middle English Dictionary, will be the
first complete set of definitions of
English used between the years 1100
and 1500.
Although the project, which is expec-
ted to be finished in the early 1990s, has
been a time-consuming search through
literature and scientific and legal
documents, it hasn't dimmed Kuhn's
love for words.
"You have to be a dictionary nut. You
have to be hooked on words," says
Kuhn. "For an editor who doesn't have
that streak of insanity in him, the work
may be boring."
KUHN became editor-in-chief of the
project in 1961, but last month, he step-
ped down from his post, five years past
the University s mandatory retirement
age.

Working on the project was slow and
painstaking, checking each entry and
overseeing all the typesetting, but Kuhn
said that isn't why he resigned.
The University had tried since the
late 1970s to find a replacement for
Kuhn, the project's fourth director, but
they were unsuccessful until last
November when Prof. Robert Lewis
agreed to take over the post.
KUHN FIRST "got hooked" on
medieval English and lexicography as
a graduate student at the University of

in 1948. Many expected the project to be
completed by 1960, but "little things"
held up progress, says Kuhn.
SEVERAL sections of the dictionary
had to be redone because many editing
errors were discovered, Kuhn said. As
a result, the entire editing process had
to be restructured, which blocked the
project from moving forward, Kuhn
says.
Before the dictionary staff settled in
the current air-conditioned offices
above Bicycle Jim's Restaurant and

'I never saw aword that wasn't interesting
... There are lots of people I haven't liked,
but words - I like them all.'
- Prof. Sherman Kuhn
Former editor-in-chief,
Middle English Dictionary
Chicago in the early 30s after several Pub on South Forest street, workers
years of studying American literature. had to sweat out the summers on the
"I was fascinated by the literature of fourth floor of Angell Hall. The intense!
the Middle Ages," It was strange, dif- heat in the aged University building
ferent from anything I had ever en- sometimes melted the special ribbons
countered," says Kuhn who has also used on the staff's typewriters.
mastered both Old English and Old Despite the obstacles, Kuhn didn't
Irish. lose his patience. He says he gets a sen-
. After receiving his doctorate in 1935, se of satisfaction from both his detailed
Kuhn kicked off his career at Oklahoma detective work and reading the
State University, and came to Ann Ar- medieval literature.
bor to begin working on the dictionary KUHN FEELS close to the people

from the middle ages, because they en-
countered experiences similar to those
people have today. The literature
details war, death, and nature which
are also common topics for modern
literature.
Unlike some of the more idealistic
people in other ages, those in the
medieval times "didn't like war, but
they didn't have any illusions (about
it)," Kuhn says. "They didn't dream
that tomorrow somebody would per-
form a miracle and there would be no
more wars forever."
Kuhn says that he will use spare time
to write articles and make trips he
never had time for before. His current
project is a book on the Vespasian
Psalter, an eighth century Latin ver-
sion of the Psalms with an English
translation written between the lines.
ALTHOUGH Kuhn is occasionally
asked to lecture, he says he prefers to
"listen and get acquainted with
people."
And meanwhile, the dictionary
project will continue. Editors plan to
publish the last section of the letter "P"
in the fall. Dictionary staff members
will gain the aid of a word processing
system in September that may cut their
work time by as much as 40 percent.
But even if the word processors
enable the editors to finish the dic-
tionary by 1990, Kuhn says it won't
phase out the researchers with "brute
intelligence" who gave their time to
turn outa quality product.
Profile appears every Tuesday.
Allen is the Daily's managing
editor.

Prof. Sherman Kuhn, former editor-in-chief of the University's Middle
English Dictionary, sits in front of one of the sorting boards that editors use

to compile the dictionary's definitions. Editors are currently working on the
letter "S," and plan to publish the last part of the letter "P" in the fall.

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